July 18, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The kids in Noah’s class were always up to no good. Despite being taught the highest morals and ethics from Methuselah, they were always finding loopholes and ways to beat the system. So, it came as no surprise to Noah when, as adults, they acted no differently. Somehow, they could always find a way to justify their misbehavior.

One of the popular practices that had become almost kosher was known as the “grape trick.” Here’s how it worked: Everyone knows that theft is illegal. But everyone also knows that it’s not worth arresting anyone for stealing a grape. (In halacha-speak, this concept is known as consuming less than a kezayis, which is forbidden but not prosecutable.) So, the trick to having a good snack of grapes was to wander around the fruit stalls in the market, taking a single grape from each vendor. The problem, of course, was that everyone was doing the same thing. Meanwhile, the poor fruit dealers were left with no produce to sell, as every passerby pinched just a little grape, a couple of nuts, half a banana, or a shot of beer…

***

Today’s daf discusses two people who arrive in court, each claiming ownership over the same tallis. The Gemara considers the potential claims that they could each make. In the first scenario, each claims to have found it first. In the second scenario, each claims that it is entirely his. The Gemara proceeds to clarify that the second scenario is a situation where both handed money to a merchant, but it is unclear which sale he intended to transact.

מתני׳ שנים אוחזין בטלית זה אומר אני מצאתיה וזה אומר אני מצאתיה זה אומר כולה שלי וזה אומר כולה שלי זה ישבע שאין לו בה פחות מחציה וזה ישבע שאין לו בה פחות מחציה ויחלוקו:

גמ׳ למה לי למתנא זה אומר אני מצאתיה וזה אומר אני מצאתיה זה אומר כולה שלי וזה אומר כולה שלי אמר רב פפא ואיתימא רב שימי בר אשי ואמרי לה כדי רישא במציאה וסיפא במקח וממכר וצריכא

דאי תנא מציאה הוה אמינא מציאה הוא דרמו רבנן שבועה עליה משום דמורי ואמר חבראי לאו מידי חסר בה איזל אתפיס ואתפליג בהדיה אבל מקח וממכר דליכא למימר הכי אימא לא ואי תנא מקח וממכר הוא דרמו רבנן שבועה עליה משום דמורי ואמר חבראי דמי קא יהיב ואנא דמי קא יהיבנא השתא דצריכא לדידי אשקליה אנא וחבראי ליזיל לטרח ליזבן אבל מציאה דליכא למימר הכי אימא לא צריכא

Mishnah: If two were holding a tallis, one says: I found it, and the other says: I found it; or, one says: It is all mine, and the other says: It is all mine. Then, the first swears that he does not own less than half of it, and the other swears that he does not own less than half, and they divide it.

Gemara: Why do I need to teach both the case of: One says: I found it, and the other says: I found it; and, one says: It is all mine, and the other says: It is all mine? Rav Pappa said (and some say it was Rav Shimi bar Ashi, and some say it was Cody): The first clause refers to a case of a found item, and the latter clause refers to a case of buying and selling. And both are necessary, for had it taught the case of a found item alone, I would say that it is only in the case of a found item that the Sages imposed an oath upon him, as in that case one can rationalize and say: The other fellow (who truly found it first) is not losing anything (by not keeping all of it, as it was not his to begin with). I will go seize it from him and divide it with him. But in the case of buying and selling, where that cannot be said, say it is not so. And had we taught the case of buying and selling alone, one might say that it is specifically in this case that the Sages imposed an oath upon him because he could rationalize his actions, saying: The other party gave money to the seller and I gave money to the seller; now that I need it for myself, I will take it and let the other one go to the trouble to buy another item (because he’ll get his money back from the seller). But in the case of a found item, where that cannot be said, say that the Sages were not concerned. Thus, both cases are necessary.

***

Outside of mafia families, very few people like to think of themselves as thieves. The thought of stealing someone else’s property is abhorrent to most decent folks. Nevertheless, as the tractate opens, our Sages offer a stern and clear warning: Don’t ever think you are immune to the natural human desire to covet what doesn’t belong to you. Undoubtedly, you would never intentionally take something that’s not yours, but sometimes one can fall into the trap of justifications and rationalizations. Your yetzer hara is able to convince you that it’s not a real theft.

In that vein, the Gemara presents two potential scenarios. In the first, you encounter someone who has had the good fortune of some gain that he didn’t labor over—like the lucky individual who wins the lottery. In your mind, he has no better right to it than you do. After all, he didn’t earn it. So, it’s not really stealing because it was never his to begin with. He just chanced upon it. In the second situation, you know that the other customer beat you to the sale. But you insist that you are the rightful purchaser. It’s not theft, you tell yourself, because I’m not actually taking anything away from the other customer. He’ll get his money back from the merchant and he can go and find another, similar item to purchase. No, says the Gemara. Both cases are considered theft, and you must take an oath that your claim to be the first person to the item is the proverbial “truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

The story of theft in the pre-Flood generation sounds a little strange, doesn’t it? The Torah tells of a world filled with violence, and then our Sages take pains to describe a marketplace of petty shoplifters. Clearly, they want to impress upon us that nobody thinks of himself as a violent criminal. It certainly doesn’t start out that way. It begins with rationalizations about how it’s not really theft because it’s a meaningless amount that the owner wouldn’t miss. And tragically, it’s downhill all the way after that, because everything can be justified. The Talmud tells of a certain erudite young man who could employ 150 different strategies and proofs to demonstrate that insects are “pure.” And in case you’re still not convinced, ask yourself if you’ve ever driven a few miles over the speed limit because the cops won’t stop you for such an insignificant infraction. Now, ask yourself if that mindset has become so normalized that you find yourself setting your cruise control just a few miles over the speed limit! You see, it’s really not that difficult to convince ourselves that certain rules and boundaries are inconsequential and that in certain circumstances we can cross those lines.

When we’re dealing with other people’s possessions, we need to be crystal clear on the red lines dividing what’s mine and what’s yours. It’s not okay to take office supplies home for personal use or to use the business credit card for personal expenses. It might not cost anyone anything when you jump the subway turnstile or say that your 13-year-old is only 12 so that he gets the child’s entry rate into the amusement park, but it’s theft, nonetheless.

There’s an anti-Semitic trope that refers to self-inflicted arson to file an insurance claim as “Jewish Lightning.” Thank God, I have never heard of such criminal conduct. Sadly, I have heard of cases where people have exaggerated their insurance claims, seeking greater reimbursement than the damage caused. That, too, is absolutely theft. Somebody has to pay for the money received by these fibbers.

There’s never any need for sticky fingers. Hashem provides your material possessions, and He has already allocated your portion. All you need to do is ask and He will provide. May all your sustenance come directly from the Almighty’s treasure chest!


Rabbi Dr. Daniel Friedman is the author of The Transformative Daf book series. He battles Christian antisemitism and teaches International Relations at Landers.

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